40 years of giant puppets

Archy wrote for the 1916 New York Evening Sun — and he is coming home this week to jazz clarinet. When the Mettawee River Company celebrates 40 years of original works with giant masks and puppets, they will bring many characters Berkshire audiences know well to Saint John the Divine Cathedral at 7:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, Sept. 11 to 13. Three years ago, when Archy last came to the Berkshires, I talked with Mettawee director Ralph Lee and went to see the show at Windsor Lake. I can still hear the music if I listen. Here is the story I wrote that summer. 

Archy is the soul of a free-verse poet trapped in a cockroach.

After midnight in a 1916 newsroom he began writing columns. He would climb onto a typewriter and dive-bomb each key head-first — he couldn’t work the shift key, so he wrote entirely in lower-case.

Across three decades, hundreds of thousands of readers followed his adventures.

He survived flying on the wing of an airplane — feeling “like a sigh in a cyclone.” He crossed the Atlantic to talk to the Kaiser and commiserate with the Czar of the Russias. So a weekend trip to the mountains is an easy step for a bug who loves an audience. He will arrive in Springside Park to share his stories — and sing them — in “Archy and Mehitabel,” one of the Metawee River Theater Company’s best-loved shows.

Director Ralph Lee and the Mettawee puppeteers bring tales with masks and music free every summer to parks in the Berkshires, Vermont and New York state.

“People like to be outdoors when the day is beginning to wane,” Lee said.

People who have met Archy on the lawn on a summer night have never forgotten it. Lee created the show 12 years ago, and people have been asking him to bring it back ever since. He chose to revive the play in the summer of 2012, he explained, because the actor playing Archy planned to leave the company after that season.

Tom Marion “has been in the company longer than anyone else,” since the 1980s, Lee said, and the theater will miss him.

Lee first met “Archy and Mehitabel” through his daughter. When she was 14, he said, she found the collection of columns by humor writer and journalist Don Marquis. (Mehitabel is a cat with the soul of Cleopatra, and she’s Archy’s best pal.)

Marquis wrote for the New York Evening Sun as World War I loomed. He wrote stories, novels and poetry as well; in his own time, he was called the heir of Mark Twain, and he inspired E.B. White.

From these columns, Lee crafted a show in sketches, songs and wry humor.

The cockroach and the cat “have a tempestuous relationship,” Lee said, “and it’s the glue that holds the material together.”

They join a cast of crickets, fleas, rat and tarantula — all puppets — on Marquis’ oversized desk.

Marquis is not a character, but “it’s his voice we hear when Archy speaks,” Lee said. “Archy let him say things he couldn’t otherwise say.”

Archy could go anywhere (including the pants cuffs of royalty) and hear anything. And he could comment on what he saw from his bug’s-eye view.

In writing his script, Lee went looking for Marquis’ voice and character. He researched Marquis’ life and came on material he found hilarious that broadened the scope of the play. Marquis was a playwright too, Lee said, and he noticed that people had been writing indignant letters to the editor of his newspaper, protesting that the plays on Broadway were full of bedroom scenes. So Marquis wrote a play in which all the characters are beds.

Lee incorporated this parody into the Mettawee play and made a series of beds to bring these characters to life — giant, expressive puppets that can “twist in agony,” he said.

He also set to music a dramatic poem Marquis wrote about a vegetable garden in trouble. As Archy said:

“… if the

garden were mine i

would set out another cabbage

plant in it and then

give it to the butterfiles for

an aviation ground.”

Composer Noel Kirkwood has written the music for the show, Lee said — a jazzy score for two musicans on vibes, saxophone and clarinet.

In this upbeat tone, he added, Marquis blends laughter with serious elements, as current now as they were 100 years ago. Archy has a conversation with the ants and argues that the ants will take over the world soon because wherever people go, that place turns into a desert.

Marquis also took on Prohibition.

“Marquis was not shy of drinking liquor, and he was outraged” by this kind of government control, Lee said.

“We have some of that because it’s so funny,” he said, “and there’s lots of prohibition of other sorts now.”

Marquis lived in turbulent times, and as a journalist he kept an ironic eye on current events, Greenwich Village restaurants, social trends and political movements — all that his city and country talked about.

“It’s a pleasure to work with this material,” Lee said. “It leads you along. It buoys you up.

“At this point, when newspapers seem to be waning in a certain way, it’s important to celebrate the richness of them.”

 

This story, updated here, first ran in Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont magazine during my time as editor there.

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